Book Review: What the Hell Did I Just Read?

David Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

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What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

Synopsis

Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators.

The novel you’re reading is a cover-up, and the “true” story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here’s what I expected from David Wong‘s What the Hell Did I Just Read?: a boyish romp through nihilistic philosophy and loads of gratuitous violence, eldritch horror, existential dread, and dick jokes.

What I got: exactly that, but with more thoughtfulness.

Just before the release of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, I reread the first in the series, John Dies at the End. I found it as good on the second read as on the first, but the difference four books (and countless articles at Cracked.com) can make in a writer’s skills and priorities shows. Wong (or Jason Pargin, really) has put his platform to work in order to touch on a few social issues, set against the background of absurdity.

I still don’t know for sure what happened in What the Hell Did I Just Read?, because as the synopsis and the title suggest, our narrators are incredibly unreliable this time around. (They may have always been. Who even knows?) It would have been easy to give readers a new logic-defying adventure characterized by the IDGAF attitude of David, John’s occasional wild narrative inputs, and Amy keeping up with the usual lunacy. That’s how it looks at first — just another fun time with our trio of badasses.

But unreliability, I think, is the point of the narrative. Real life is messy and noisy and confusing. Stories get convoluted when one person tries to cover for another, your friends prove somewhat untrustworthy, and, like internet comment threads, nothing gets tied up in a neat, satisfying bow. Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

You tend to hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination” as a consolation for an unsatisfactory conclusion. By the time I tumbled to the last page of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, that phrase is exactly what I was thinking. As I mulled over the events of the narrative, I realized that, as in life, what happened along the way was far more important than the end. I had fun and that was what mattered.

I won’t spoil, but there are two “along the way” events I really cared about: Amy’s role in this unholy trinity and the issue of David’s mental health. Both of them indicate Wong’s changing social issue stances.

My favorite part is that Amy gets to have her own agency, her own (contradictory) opinions and desires, things she does outside of hanging out with David and John, actions that impact the narrative, and even acts as the household provider in her and David’s dynamic. Things women don’t often get to do in fiction, despite them being daily realities for us all. Things Amy didn’t get to do much in the previous two books.

My next favorite is that, while Wong has never forced David into taking action about his depression before now, he finally takes a dig into the resistance depression sufferers often show toward psychological improvement, using David and company as his mouthpieces to get the message across to his readers. He’s made no secret of David’s mental health issues, but here he brought it to the forefront instead of letting it stagnate in the background.

Overall, I’m pleased with Wong’s execution of this newest installment, particularly since it takes the frightening and makes it familiar through the lens of relatable characters who could, at this point, be any of us.

Goodreads rating: 4.43 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: All the Crooked Saints

Maggie Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, but I think I’ve picked out the main one…

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All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis

Here is a thing everyone wants: A miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: What it takes to get one. Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here at last, I thought as I began reading All the Crooked Saints, was a Maggie Stiefvater book I wouldn’t love with all my heart. That’s a natural thing; no reader will adore every single piece a writer sends out.  I was prepared to accept this and look forward to her next book while rereading her previous ones.

The tone of All the Crooked Saints is more fanciful than usual, for starters, presented like an old folktale, with sparkling liveliness glinting in its eye. Also, it’s told in third-person omniscient, a style that I tend to dislike, as it jumps point-of-view too often for my taste.

But this, it turns out, is because while there are a dozen characters, each with their own wants and fears, darknesses, miracles, and personal arcs, there are really two characters in this story: the Saints and the pilgrims.

In a Facebook post prior to the release of All the Crooked Saints, Stiefvater alludes to last year, when she became inundated with requests for advice. “I found myself with a Tumblr inbox overflowing with readers asking me for #dubiouslifeadvice. But even as I answered the questions, I asked myself: what qualifies me to answer? Aren’t I imperfect, too, maybe more than the seeker?”

That very question shapes this story. Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, and I very well may in the future, but I think I’ve picked out the main one.

Once, in an article for Jalopnik, for which Steifvater writes pieces about cars that are actually metaphors for life, she pointed out something about my generation that stuck with me:

…young people can be anxious and say they’re anxious. There’s no longer a stigma to admitting it. On the one hand, this is beautiful. Name the monster and you can kill it. But on the other hand… people aren’t killing it. They’ve named it and now they’re keeping it as a permanent fixture of the household. It lurks in the living room with its pretend immortality. Will you kill it for me, please? They ask.

That’s us. We’re the pilgrims, asking the Saints for a miracle, then finding that once we’ve named the monster, we must be the ones to kill it. No one else can do it, because they’re all wrestling their own darknesses. “This is one spider you’ve got to kill on your own,” she writes.

The takeaway here, I think, is that we cannot cease solving ourselves. To work through our own problems (instead of setting them on the mantelpiece) is to help others with theirs. But, as in the tale, one follows the other. Perhaps it also returns on itself.

So, in conclusion, I loved this book. It’s filled with tasty morsels for my mind to chew over a good week after closing it. I identify with Beatriz Soria, who struggles with a darkness that gnaws at my own heart at times. I’m sure readers can find themselves somewhere inside this story, too. But will you be a pilgrim, or will you be a Saint?

Goodreads rating: 3.93 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Pre-Ordered Books of 2017

I’ve waited all year to read both of these.

I’ve waited all year to read both of these and they each arrived in the mail at the same time today. 

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater and What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

Reviews will be forthcoming. (Happy, spazzy dance!)

Book Review: Un Lun Dun

The story itself mockingly dodged predictable hero’s journey tropes, twisting around and jumping the curb every chance it got, as if to say, “you just thought you knew what was coming next.”

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Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Synopsis:

What is Un Lun Dun?

It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions:

Un Lun Dun, by New York Times bestselling author China Miéville, sets the typical hero’s journey on its side. Or perhaps inside out. For a city that’s London but very much not London, both familiar and strange, no destined chosen one will do. The very opposite, in fact. Just a girl with the stubborn courage to act, a girl who could be any of us, undestined, unchosen, but still capable of changing an entire world.

The tone of Un Lun Dun is a marvelous, whimsical cross between Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, two of my favorite stories, the likes of which I rarely find elsewhere. It shows the heart of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobethe main character perhaps being a tribute to C. S. Lewis’s wonderful character Lucy Pevensie. (If not, I know Lucy would get right along with Deeba Resham.) Throughout the course of Un Lun Dun, Miéville masterfully weaves in descriptions of his curious and complicated UnLondon without losing the momentum of the narrative. I won’t forget Wraithtown or the binjas, moil houses made from random objects, or the unbrellas (because I may be stuck thinking of my umbrella as an unbrella from now on). Also, carnivorous giraffes.

The story itself mockingly dodged predictable hero’s journey tropes, twisting around and jumping the curb every chance it got, as if to say, “you just thought you knew what was coming next.” The characters as a group become a powerful force, strong individually by the end, but mighty when brought together. The close of the story left me with the impression that not all problems are solved over the course of one book, but that the characters who took me across Unlondon and back can now face up to any challenge with the trust they have in each other.

Goodreads rating: 3.81 stars
My rating: 4/5 stars

Book Review: The Blood Mirror

A deft narration interwoven with a unique magic system, complex world building, cunning politics, interesting history, brilliant battles, intricate confrontations, and, best of all, puns.

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The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks

Synopsis:

Stripped of both magical and political power, the people he once ruled told he’s dead, and now imprisoned in his own magical dungeon, former Emperor Gavin Guile has no prospect of escape. But the world faces a calamity greater than the Seven Satrapies has ever seen… and only he can save it.
As the armies of the White King defeat the Chromeria and old gods are born anew, the fate of worlds will come down to one question: Who is the Lightbringer?

(Via Goodreads)

My Impressions:

The Blood Mirror is the fourth installment in The Lightbringer series, written by New York Times Bestselling author, Brent Weeks. I’ve been following his works since the simultaneous debut release of The Night Angel trilogy in 2008, which was my first real introduction into the genre of epic fantasy (and my gateway drug into the works of Peter V. Brett and Patrick Rothfuss). Since then, I’ve read The Night Angel trilogy more times than I have fingers on both hands. Yet Weeks continues to improve his storytelling game with every new book. His Night Angel trilogy is breathtaking, but his Lightbringer series is mind blowing.

I took so long to get around to reading this book partly because every time I went to pick it up at the library, it was checked out. No matter which branch I went to. The other part of the reason was because I knew that, once I started it, I wouldn’t be able to stop reading.

I was wrong. By that, I mean I was so wrong. Not only could I not stop reading it, The Blood Mirror consumed me, mind and soul. Every time I had to put it down for work or sleep or socializing, I wanted only to get back to it the moment I was free again. Even now, a solid day after devouring even the Author’s Note at the end (Weeks’s notes are always humorous), I’m still pining for more.

Here’s why:

The Lightbringer series features a plethora of characters from all across the spectrum, each one individual and interesting, complex and–in the case of Andross Guile for me–infuriatingly difficult to pin down. As lifelike as real people. The Blood Mirror focuses on a year fraught with peril for our four main characters: Kip, Teia, Karris, and Gavin. These four undergo tremendous character growth, each trapped in personal fights, stretched more and more between impossible decisions that will affect the war raging across the Seven Satrapies against the White King. It’s plain that what occurs in The Blood Mirror is the buildup to the explosive climax that will be the entirety of the final book.

Weeks has convinced me to fear for his characters.

Just when it seems Weeks has reached the maximum number of new cultures to introduce to the story and the peak of new applications for his magic system, he flies right past it and soars into the sky. I can never get enough of exploring this vast and richly colored world. The narrative itself is an examination and dissection of morality, madness, philosophy, theology, and love. More questions than answers, as well as a look out how each character must handle that uncertainty. A deft narration interwoven with a unique magic system, complex world building, cunning politics, interesting history, brilliant battles, intricate confrontations, and, best of all, puns. 

I don’t know how I’ll survive the next couple of years waiting for, likely, the last book. What torture. (Somewhere, Brent Weeks is cackling as he draws more life from his readers’ pain.)

Goodreads rating: 4.28 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: The Dark Days Club

I cannot gush about The Dark Days Club enough. It’s deliciously dark, a thrilling urban fantasy.

The Dark Days Club
The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman

Synopsis:

London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears-and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

(Via Goodreads)

My Impressions:

I missed the release of The Dark Days Club back in 2016 and I’m sad that I only just now got to read it. But the upside is this: well before I finished this book, I found out the second in the trilogy, The Dark Days Pact, has already been released, a discovery I made because I didn’t want the one I had in my grubby little hands to end yet. Whew.

I may or may not have the sequel on order as I write this.

I cannot gush about The Dark Days Club enough. It’s deliciously dark, a thrilling urban fantasy. I don’t normally go in for Regency era narratives (yawn), but this one builds a rich world, lovingly detailed to strengthen the plot rather than detract from it. The book is large enough to use as a weapon in a fight, but the narrative wastes none of that space, moving right along from one bit of intrigue to the next. Alison Goodman pulled me in with an escalating cascade of questions and mysteries, one leading to another, growing grander in scale. Lady Helen Wrexhall is a sharp and clever main character, vibrant and lifelike. The other characters are distinctly themselves — from a horrid, overbearing uncle in charge of Helen’s life, down to the house footmen. At this point, I would love to meet the steadfast handmaid Jen Darby or the savage Lord William Carlston myself.

You know how we often get tales of heroines ripe for rebellion because, for some reason, they don’t ascribe to the norms of society in even the slightest? This is not one of those stories. Lady Helen Wrexhall lives a comfortable life in Regency London and when her life starts to shift toward the paranormal, she’s actually resistant to losing that carefree happiness. A refreshing change in characterization, in my opinion. The question of which life Helen will choose grows more and more exquisitely agonizing right up to the end. In Alison Goodman’s duology, Eon (which I highly recommend), the heroine does not choose the life or the lover I wanted her to pick (because, frankly, that choice would not have been heroic and would have led to her ultimate downfall). But this time around, Helen did not disappoint me in the slightest. Darkness rules the day in The Dark Days Club and I am well pleased.

Goodreads rating: 3.82 stars (why?!)
My rating: 5/5 stars (I would give it more if I could)

 

Book Review: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

The narrative style is quick and punchy enough to keep me turning pages, the wit snaps, and the characters are quite lifelike. I’d definitely hang out with this bunch of goofballs and have a good time with them.

Hold Me Closer
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride

Synopsis:

Sam leads a pretty normal life. He may not have the most exciting job in the world, but he’s doing all right—until a fast food prank brings him to the attention of Douglas, a creepy guy with an intense violent streak.

Turns out Douglas is a necromancer who raises the dead for cash and sees potential in Sam. Then Sam discovers he’s a necromancer too, but with strangely latent powers. And his worst nightmare wants to join forces . . . or else.

With only a week to figure things out, Sam needs all the help he can get. Luckily he lives in Seattle, which has nearly as many paranormal types as it does coffee places. But even with newfound friends, will Sam be able to save his skin?

(Via Goodreads)

My Impressions:

About the Author:

 

Lish McBride
Lish McBride, image from foreveryoungadult.com

 

Lish McBride lives and works in the Pacific Northwest as a Young Adult novelist.  She’s written two books about Sam LaCroix and she has another series she’s writing that starts with Firebug. While I haven’t read this one of hers yet, Leigh Bardugo — whose book Six of Crows was the subject of one of my more fangirly previous posts — publicly acclaimed it on Twitter, so Firebug is going straight onto my to-be-read listHold Me Closer, Necromancer is McBride’s first novel.

About the Book:

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is a character-driven urban fantasy set in Seattle, Washington and populated with a plethora of magical creatures, namely some witches, a mess of werewolves, and, of course, a couple of necromancers. It’s not the John Dies at the End story I expected based on the description. (Why would I think that? I don’t know. That’s just what I got out of it.) More like something in the vein of The Dresden Files books, but for young adults.

Though the book is designated as Young Adult, the main character, Sam LaCroix, is really a new adult, just post-graduation and stuck in a soul-sucking fast food job with little to no hope of a fulfilling career. His wry attitude makes such all-too-familiar agony bearable though, as he’s a guy capable of rolling with the punches with good humor. He has a handful of solid friends who have his back when his entire life takes a turn for the weird. I dig how the villain, Douglas Montgomery, is constantly in motion, not sitting on the sidelines or waiting for Sam to bring the fight to him. The narrative style is quick and punchy enough to keep me turning pages, the wit snaps, and the characters are quite lifelike. I’d definitely hang out with this bunch of goofballs and have a good time with them.

There were some parts that didn’t thrill me too much. For example, the really cool, kickass chick spends nearly all of her time in a cage magically designed to keep her half-breed self locked up, and the rest of her time flirting with Sam. She does get one awesome and well-deserved fight at the end, but that’s it. The romance isn’t mushy, as my local library promised (half the reason I picked this up, aside from the word necromancer on the cover), but, as is my main complaint with most YA romances, it comes off a bit forced. Also, while Sam’s narrative is in first person point of view, we get the point of view of several other characters, all of those in third person. Switching between first person and third person bugs me, but that may just be a personal peeve. I really liked getting into Sam’s head, but I found myself less interested in the other characters and looked forward to when we would get back to his part of the story.

McBride takes a decent amount of time with her wrap-up to tie up any loose ends, which I appreciate. Her execution struck me as kind of odd, however, until I found out there’s a second book in the series, for which she was setting up. I think she could have put most of the ending content at the beginning of the next book and it would have been a good deal neater. But it was just intriguing enough that I think I’ll be checking out the sequel, Necromancing the Stone.

Goodreads rating 3.95 stars
My rating 4/5 stars